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Smede Street rail crossing: Two sides, three fatalities

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Feb. 10, 2001
Hickory officials say they asked the Mississippi Department of Transportation for help in upgrading their downtown Smede Street railroad crossing  and got no response. MDOT officials say they promised to completely fund a project to close the crossing a year ago and town officials declined.
Meanwhile, three Hickory residents have died at the Smede Street crossing in collisions with Kansas City Southern freight trains since November 1999. Trinette Wilson and Kirk Buntyn were killed at the site in late 1999. Sidney Wagner died Tuesday afternoon when a Kansas City freight train collided with his tractor.
George Monroe, Hickory Board of Aldermen attorney, said Hickory Mayor Wayne Griffith sent a letter to MDOT's Central District Commissioner, Dick Hall. The letter requested MDOT's help putting in stop signs, warning lights and speed breakers at the crossing. It also asked that trains' speed limit be limited to 25 mph.
Town officials say two copies of the letter were sent since Jan. 5, 2000, and officials have yet to receive a response.
Hall said Friday MDOT has no record of receiving the letter.
He said MDOT uses a grading process to determine which crossings should be upgraded. The process is used to prioritize the projects within MDOT's budget. Smede Street isn't approved for an upgrade because it "never comes up making the most sense simply because there is another crossing and there are other towns that have only one crossing."
The other crossing, a short distance to the west, has signal lights. Smede Street's crossing has only crossbucks and a warning painted on the pavement.
another option if there are two crossings. The fallacy
of that is the trains are a mile and a half long. If
you had a derailment there you'd block both of them
them, but there's got to be some give and take," Hall said. "They can't have it all."
He said MDOT records show the street to be lightly
traveled, but trains can legally go up to 60 mph
through the crossing. If town officials agree to close
it, Hall said MDOT as previously offered will
pay to have it closed and also pay for a complete upgrade to the Highway 503 crossing not far away, including laying concrete and installing crossing
He said MDOT officials are having similar problems
with a rail crossing in nearby Lake, where two crossings are about 100 yards apart.
government can't make the decisions. It's too tough
for them," Hall said.
MDOT's rails engineer, Steven Edwards, said the
process of closing the street is simple. Town
officials have a first reading of what they want to
do, enter it into the minutes and then vote to close
the street. They advertise for two weeks to give the
public an opportunity to request a public hearing.
If no one requests it, they vote on closing the street. If a public hearing must be held, they get public
input and then vote on whether to close the street.
They must then notify MDOT by letter saying they voted to close the street, along with a copy of their board order and the advertisement.
Edwards said MDOT could then vote to close the street at its next meeting. Once the second vote is taken, MDOT would immediately request plans from the railroad. The street would be closed and upgrades done. The approval process could be completed within two months. The whole process, including completing the upgrade and closing the street, could be completed in a year to 18 months, he said.
But if Hickory officials ordered it, the deadly Smede Street crossing could be closed immediately.
upgrades are done on the other crossing or they could
close immediately, all based on what is in the board
order," Edwards said.
don't close until the other upgrade is done, but we
have had some where we closed it immediately as soon as the vote was done. It's up to the town. They could vote to close Smede Street effective now."
He said if town officials voted the crossing closed
immediately, he would call Kansas City Southern
officials and possibly have the crossing closed the
next day. Railroad crews could come the next day to make the crossing impassable for vehicles.
Kansas City Southern would fund the closing and supply the labor, he said, and MDOT would fund the barricades for the town to have placed in the street. He said the whole project would cost the town nothing, except maybe "the cost of some signs Dead End Street signs, maybe."
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.